Category Archives: Tanabata

Letters to the Stars

Hiroshige_The_city_flourishing, _Tanabata_festival,_1857

On the seventh day of the seventh month we’d do well to look up at the nighttime sky for the stars Vega and Altair. It is the night of Tanabata, a Japanese star festival based upon the story of Orihime (Vega, the Weaver Star) and Hikoboshi (Altair, the Cowherd Star), lovers separated by the Milky Way. They can meet only once each year on this, the seventh night of the seventh month.

Here on Earth, we celebrate by writing wishes on strips of paper and tying them to the trees. Bamboo is traditional, but any tree will do. And any wish will do. If the wish is yours, write it down, place it in the branches. Perhaps your wishes will be carried off into the heavens, or at least be made known to the elements, and perhaps your wishes will come true.

As for the lovers, here is their story: Orihime was the beautiful daughter of the Sky King, Tentei. She wove beautiful cloth on the banks of the Amanogawa, the Milky Way, and her father loved the cloth she wove, and so she worked very hard to make enough for him so that he would always have plenty of it. But Orihime worked so hard at her weaving that she never had time for anything else. As much as Tentei loved the cloth Orihime wove, he knew she needed some balance, some time away from her work, and so he arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the Cow Herder, who lived on the other side of the Amanogawa.

Well, it was love at first sight if there ever was such a thing. The two soon married, and that was wonderful, but Orihime pretty much gave up her work at the loom, and as for Hikoboshi’s cattle, well, they were soon roaming all over Heaven. Tentei grew angrier and angrier over this new turn of events, and finally put his foot down. He separated the two lovers on either side of the Amanogawa and forbade them to see each other. Orihime despaired over the loss of her husband. Moved by his daughter’s tears, Tentei relented. But he allowed the two lovers to meet only once each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month. And so it goes each year.

There are variations of the story, and even variations of the day of celebration. In some parts of Japan, Tanabata is celebrated in August. Obon, another Japanese summer celebration, is also celebrated at different times in different parts of the country.

The trees at Tanabata are decorated not just with wishes on paper, but also origami and other decorations made of paper. How beautiful. And if you have a wish, make it known. Put pen to paper, write a letter to the stars. Part of making wishes come true is placing them outside yourself, giving them to Tentei, to the universe.


Image: The City Flourishing, Tanabata Festival by Hiroshige. Ukiyo-e print on paper, 1857, [Public domain] via WikiMedia Commons.